“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” –Charles Baudelaire From Art in Theory 1815-1900
For anyone who has observed a very young child for any length of time, you quickly realize that babies and toddlers have a markedly different relationship with the world than most adults do. Where as adults often seem purposeful and directed in their actions, with exacting and deliberate outcome in mind, young children are often moving through flowing states of exploration–engaging and routinely disengaging focus as dictated by their whim, unable to delay gratification, and barely possessing the ability to convey complex emotions. All of which often make children appear to be largely unfocused and residing in a state of fluttering consciousness. Parents often see this trait as apparent immaturity, in comparison to their relative crystalline focus and single-mindedness.
A fascinating article by Jonah Lerher outlining new groundbreaking research, which ran in the Boston Globe last month, provides an entirely different picture of what we think we know about baby/toddler consciousness. According to the piece, unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality (thus allowing us the ability to achieve sustained focus), babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation. “They are” as the author states, “more aware of the world than we are.”
Rene Descartes famously argued that the young child was simply bound by sensation and hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now, but as evidenced by the research sited in this article, the average baby brain contains more brain cells that the average adult brain. This renders an adult’s attention to function almost like that of a narrow spotlight illuminating very specific parts of reality, whereas with very young children it functions more along the lines of a lantern, illuminating the whole of their surroundings. This is precisely the reason why a child, while not being able to remember the name of a beloved family member, will (without being asked to) remember the color of the walls, the shape of the candy bowl, and the crack in the ceiling of that nameless relatives home. Basically, because children have yet to become to accustomed to all of the rules of the world, as well as the details they are expected to focus upon, they instead opt (by nature) to just take everything in.
Maybe it is just me, but I found the notion of this hyper-aware and open consciousness to be thoroughly intriguing as well as somewhat humbling. It is well known that adults, as high functioning as we can be, quickly loose the ability to experience life as a truly open and unbiased experience. We tend to compartmentalize, prejudge, and look at the world around us with an unyielding subjectivity.
Now, I am not going to resort to cheap romanticism and impracticality by stating that we should try to rewire our minds to perform and process the stimulus of the world like young children do (since we are all far too long gone). However, maybe the simple act of retraining how we observe our children’s interactions with the immediate world around them (now that we know they are firing way more neurons than we could imagine), could help open our minds to the newer side of old experiences.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.
Parenting at the Crossroads